Game of Drones

By Paul Currion

IRIN Columnist 

In his latest column, recovering aid worker Paul Currion asks whether the debate over the use of drones misses a fundamental point: Does their very nature compromise humanitarian principles?

Drones! They're everywhere. There's probably a drone over your house right now, especially if you're:

a. planning an act of terrorism;
b. chatting with your mum on Skype about an act of terrorism on the news;
c. wondering whether drone strikes themselves are in fact a state-sanctioned act of terrorism.

Of course it's grossly unfair to paint all drones with the same brush, and also impractical because you'd need a very big brush. Drones are being tested by humanitarian organisations for a range of activities such as needs assessment, aid delivery, and buzzing Bhutanese farmers. Leading the charge are commercial companies like Matternet (who have good intentions but a questionable business model) and non-profit upstarts like Drone Adventures (who have even better intentions and no business model). But even old warhorses like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are getting in on the action.

The fascinating Drones for Good challenge hosted earlier this month by the United Arab Emirates - with a $1 million prize - showcased some of these activities (although presumably none of the entrants proposed using drones to trace the political detainees that have allegedly been forcibly disappeared and tortured in the UAE, according to Amnesty International). Drones are so widespread that last year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued a policy paper, something they only do when they need to pretend that somebody is on top of things.

So far, so humanitarian, but market share tells another story. The Teal Group estimates the drone market in 2014 was split 89 percent military to 11 percent civilian and this won't shift much in the next decade. They're not the same type of drones, of course, but that's a distinction without a difference given the well-documented terror that many people (and the Union of European Football Associations) feel when living under drones.

It's telling that the OCHA policy paper refers to “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (UAVs) rather than drones. UAV is a term preferred by the military because it sounds less like unseen death machines, and of course by manufacturers because “unseen death machines” is a really tough sell. “Sell” is the key word because drone use is being driven by commercial interests and promoted by uncritical technology journalism. Result: a ton of cool videos of drones over Haiti and zero transparency regarding their actual impact – for example, a cost-benefit analysis that could tell us whether buying a drone will save more lives than improving hygiene promotion (Clue: it won’t, but hey! Hygiene promotion is complicated and doesn't make any profit).

There's no doubt that civilian use of drones is going to increase, and equally no doubt that this will be accompanied by an increase in regulation. In January, participants at a Department of Homeland Security drone summit had the pleasure of safely viewing a DJI Phantom II - the bestselling recreational drone - with 1.4 kg of explosives strapped to it. Less than two weeks later, a drunk U.S. government employee accidentally crashed his own Phantom II into the grounds of the White House, giving the security services a short-lived but acute panic attack. 

One result of the White House incident was that it nudged the Federal Aviation Authority to issue long-delayed regulatory guidelines for UAVs (that sadly appear to please precisely nobody). Another result was that the drone manufacturer DJI updated its software to prevent its drones from going anywhere near the White House. This is business as usual for DJI, who already have 31 no-fly zones in China: 30 are around airports, and the last is over Tiananmen Square.

DJI and other drone manufacturers are completely right to obey government regulations, but this raises another potential problem for humanitarian organisations, since a software update is a lot harder to negotiate with than a checkpoint guard. Apply the same logic to your vehicles as DJI does to its drones: I don’t think anybody would be happy if Toyota automatically prevented your Land Cruiser from driving too close to areas the government felt were sensitive - like, say, all of Darfur.

But these sorts of practical challenges are small compared to the range of larger legal and ethical questions that have been the subject of some healthy debate. The OCHA paper usefully compares drones to dual-use military equipment, such as armoured cars, which some humanitarian organisations will use in some situations, but this subject is by no means settled. As one NGO representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo has said, using drones would be like “handing out food aid from the back of a tank”.

“Dual-use“ is a slippery concept. Firearms are dual-use, since they can be used for hunting, for sport, for pest control, and so on. Yet most humanitarian organisations have clear policies: staff don't carry guns; vehicles don't transport guns; offices don't allow guns. Carrying guns would compromise the basic humanitarian principle of neutrality by making the organisation a party to the conflict. “Dual-use” may be relevant when we’re talking about military vehicles, but it isn’t when we’re talking about guns - because carrying a gun carries a very specific meaning, regardless of any other uses.

MSF sums this up simply: “It is crucial that no armed people are in or near the hospitals, as the presence of anyone who is armed means the facility becomes a target of war.” Of course MSF, one of the most vocal defenders of humanitarian principles, is also an active participant in a drone pilot project. Maybe some confusion is understandable in the early days of the drone debate, but what’s worrying is that (even in MSF’s case) the terms of debate are technocratic, rather than principled: the main question being asked is 'do drones work?'

Drones are a transformative technology with a range of potential uses, and for specific requirements in the appropriate environment they can have a real and positive impact. Yet the technocratic approach to drone use fails to answer a more fundamental question: does their very nature compromise humanitarian principles?

pc/rh/ha